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Great Blogs of Fire!: Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce

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When I was younger, I never understood how or why my dad would eat these strange red and yellow seeds on his pizza.  When I would try them, my mouth would hurt, and I vowed to never sully my pizza again with this mysterious condiment. As time went by, I realized they were just dried pepper flakes, and I tried them again.  What was once a traumatic experience, now was a pleasurable one.  I moved on to jalapenos on nachos and Louisiana hot sauce on my Popeye’s fried chicken.  My desire for spice grew as time went on as I diversified the foods I ate or went out of my way to try like in Mexican, Sichuan, or Indian cuisine.  I eventually reached my dad’s level where my spice tolerance makes my fellow diners shake their head in disbelief. Owners/servers of ethnicities known for piquant food traditions have marveled at the idea of a white person enjoying the same level of spice as they do or perhaps even more so.  It has also caused episodes of spice profiling when restaurant owners did not make it spicy enough for my liking even if I requested it when ordering.   By consuming spicy foods, I see myself carrying on the family tradition from my dad, but it made me wonder what caused me to develop this desire to consume fiery dishes?  According to the Smithsonian and Popular Science, it seems that food preferences are a mixture of nature and nurture.  While initial studies thought that genes could make individuals more resistant to the spicy food’s effects on their taste receptors, a recent study showed that more extroverted or thrill-seeking personalities were drawn to spicy flavors.  This doesn’t mean that the more adventurous eaters felt the burn less, rather the insular lobe in their brains connected the pain and/or novelty of the taste to positive feelings.  This connection of pain and pleasure goes against millennia of evolution where chili plants originally developed capsaicin to deter animals from consuming them.

Thus, this long history of hellish dining brings me to my first meeting with Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce.  The label on the front looks fun enough with a little smiling pepper catching some rays under the sun on the beach looking innocuous enough with some shades, a little umbrella, and a cool drink at his side.  All is well with the world, or so you would think.

Then you flip the bottle over, and you realize that there was a reason why the smug chili pepper on the front had a devious smile.

Perhaps the part with removing oil stains and wax floors is a bit of hyperbole, but after tangling with this beast in a bottle, I can agree that the second half of the warning label is legitimate.  According to Dave’s Gourmet website, this sauce has been the only sauce banned from the National Fiery Foods Show and is recommended for real O.C.s or Original Chiliheads.  When I poured a bit of this hell-fire out, it was a thick, burgundy sauce that was like a very thick mole sauce or a grainy buttercream cake frosting.  I then made the plunge by tasting the drop, and it felt like a mix of a MOAB drop and a lightning bolt of nostalgia went off in my mouth.  The taste was the same or very similar to the extremely spicy, esophagus-closing sauce I had at Onniyure Donkatsu in Seoul.  According to chiliworld.com, the main ingredient is red savina habanero peppers as well as pure capsaicin or the active irritant found in chili peppers.  It is roughly rated at 250,000 Scoville heat units where as original Tabasco sauce is only 2,000 Scovilles or Frank’s RedHot sauce is only 450 Scovilles.  Needless to say, the spice level was overpowering even for a seasoned fire-eater like me, and it lasts for at least 30 minutes after eating.  The flavor is kind of bitter due to the high levels of capsaicin extract, and it is better mixed into soups or rice dishes to provide a spicier profile instead of being consumed straight up.  This sauce could be considered a biohazard though and should not be trifled with.  For example, I found that I started to cough/choke on the sauce’s fumes when washing the sauce off my plate with hot water.  Tread carefully, adventurous diners.

Final Score for Dave’s Insanity Sauce

Flavor:  3/10
Spice:  10/10
Overall:  6.5/10       This is not your backyard barbecue hot sauce.  What it lacks in flavor, it more than makes up for in spice.  It is certainly not my favorite hot sauce, but it is definitely a go-to if I’m feeling like having a good sweat while eating.

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Costa Rica (Day 5)- Sloth Sanctuary = BOO-YA, Grandma!

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BARKBARKWOWOFOFUFFUFUFWOOFFBARKBARK!!!!!!!  We awoke in Costa Rica on day five of our vacation to the calming sound of a loudly barking pack of dogs at 5 am.  We had made friends with them the night before when we arrived at Kenaki Lounge, so I would have thought that they would have at least kept the woofing to a minimum before 8 am.

So friendly at night.

So friendly at night.

Instead, we found that the entire pooch army had encamped right outside our door with the big Great Dane literally like a giant rock wedged up against our sliding door.  With a bit of finesse and good humor, we got the big guy out of the way, and he greeted me with a smooch.IMG_5231  The sun hadn’t risen yet, but our lodging was quite luscious in the daytime.  IMG_5232We set out to see the beach that was right across the dirt road in front of our hotel, and after a bit of bushwhacking through some mud and palm trees, we finally managed to reach the Caribbean Sea.IMG_5234  The sunrise was absolutely beautiful; I really couldn’t say that about the beach.  Compared to the clear, sapphire waters on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, the turgid waters were silty and poo colored like the sand on our sandals.  It was more jungle-esque with more bugs too, but both were pretty in their own unique ways.  After walking back, we managed to find a normal path that we could have taken initially instead of jumping over soggy, muddy ditches.  We arrived back at our room to be summoned for a fresh breakfast of fruit and gallo pinto, of course, to be eaten on the deck in the open air.

Our view over breakfast

Our view over breakfast

IMG_5250IMG_5244  The starfruit were my favorite additions to the fruit plate since they were juicy yet sour which provided a nice contrast to the juicy watermelon and sweet pineapple.   On the side, we had a hot cup of tea along with a mix of papaya and orange juice. IMG_5245 Normally, I’m not a huge fan of papaya (the orange slice on the fruit plate) since it doesn’t really taste like much aside from the occasional hint of fecal matter.  I know it sounds odd, but that’s just my impression of it.  By the time we were chowing down on the last delicious remnants of our breakfast, our driver Rigoberto had arrived to whisk us to what we had been waiting for the entire trip:  the sloth sanctuary!!  When we arrived, we could hardly contain our excitement as everything sloth was surrounding us (even the road signs). IMG_5255 Our first close encounter with one of the slow creatures was with Buttercup; the local sloth diva that I ate fruit with before Janice broke down like a fan-girl. IMG_5260 We went on a canoe ride throughout the neighboring lagoon complete with pooping and screaming howler monkeys whose hoots echoed through the thick jungle air.  We then experienced such highlights like meeting baby sloths, feeding two toed sloths, and shaking hands with three toed sloths. IMG_5533 IMG_5298 Some fun facts we learned about the sloths include:  they’re related to armadillos and anteaters; they’re cold blooded mammals; and they can move as fast as an average human jogging if necessary.  Sadly, we eventually had to leave the wonderful paradise, but that meant that Rigoberto was going to bring us to a great Costa Rican restaurant that served food that was grilled right in front of your eyes.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the guy waved us away, but it was a blessing in disguise.  We went across the street to another Costa Rican greasy spoon diner called “Soda El Oasis“. IMG_5308 It looked a world away from the first soda we went to given that everything looked spotless from the walls to the silverware even though it was in the middle of a small town called Pocora. IMG_5307 Looking over the menu, which was just a whiteboard on the wall, I went for an order of carne ahumada (smoked meat), a cheese empanada, and a blackberry milkshake. IMG_5306 Janice got arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), and it was absolutely mind-blowing.  I don’t know if it was the spices, or the way they fried the rice, but it made me wish I got a side order of it.  As for my plate, the meat was off the hook or perhaps the grill with the wood-smoked flavor that thoroughly permeated every juicy bite. IMG_5309  The casado combined with the chayote mixed very well with the pork, and the light, mixed salad on the side countered the heartier half of the plate.  As for the empanada, it was a semi-fail since they gave me a chicken one instead of cheese.IMG_5311  It was good but not great by comparison to the rest of the meal.  Once we finally completed the long trek back to San Jose and bid farewell to good, ol’ Rigoberto, we decided to descend into the madness that was downtown San Jose in the middle of rush hour.  Our cab driver was trying his best to make his way through the chaotic and severely congested streets as hordes of people streamed past our windows and a thick blanket of exhaust wafted through my nostrils.  Eventually, we arrived at the main cathedral in the heart of San Jose.  It was rebuilt after an earthquake according to a security guard who proceeded to give me an entire history of the site after I crossed myself upon leaving.  We also saw the National Theater and the Central Market located on Avenida Central. IMG_5320IMG_5324 It was super busy like everywhere else in the area and was pickpocket central, so be wary with your possessions when walking through the masses.  We hit up a local bakery to get some pastries for next day’s breakfast, and I couldn’t wait to try them.  It made me even hungrier by the time we got back to the condo.  Word on the street was that La Casa de Mi Abuela (My Grandmother’s House in Spanish) was the place to eat at in San Jose, and strangely enough it was run by an expat Canadian.  It was in a strip mall nearby our timeshare that seemed quite abandoned, but the exploration was worth it.IMG_5325  We were the only people in the restaurant, so we got extremely personal service.  IMG_5326Turns out the owner was originally from New Brunswick, but it seems that the pura vida lifestyle called him back.  He was super friendly and polite like all Canadians I’ve met which was one of many pluses for this establishment.IMG_5327IMG_5328  I was quickly acquainted with the only downside of the restaurant:  the bathroom.  It was the dirtiest thing in probably the whole of Costa Rica as the owner winced when I asked him where it was.  He handed me a bottle of hand sanitizer, and bade me the best of luck.  Goody.  I undid the lock on the bathroom door (always promising), walked in, and it looked like I was going to get shanked if I didn’t do my business fast enough.  I hustled, and returned to order my meal.  Out of all of the small places throughout Costa Rica we went to, that bathroom was the dirtiest place we saw, and we went to small truck stop bathrooms in the jungle.  Bathroom antics aside, I got an order of the ribs with a glass of guanabana and blackberry juice.  Janice got the homemade pork sausages with mixed veggies and hand-ground mustard sauce.  While waiting for our meat to be grilled on the griddle out front,IMG_5329IMG_5331 we were treated to some complimentary garlic bread, rice, Nicaraguan red beans, and a homemade spicy sauce.  Everything was delicious, including the beans and rice. IMG_5342 Surprisingly, we weren’t sick of them because they were different than the typical black beans of the casado or kidney beans in gallo pinto, but rather they were bigger and slightly harder.  Plus, the spicy sauce was a slighty sweet and smoky bbq flourish that I was digging.  The garlic bread was sliced into irregular squares, but the owner went hard on the garlic cloves and the butter. I was in heaven.IMG_5332  The party really got started when I asked the owner if he had any guaro or sugar cane liquor, the local alcoholic beverage of choice.  He gave me another sideways look and just matter-of-factly asked, “Why?”.  I responded that I just wanted to try it, so he brought out two shot glasses.  He bade us luck, and I took it down while Janice sipped it. IMG_5335IMG_5341 I would liken it to a slightly sweet, slightly watered down vodka that isn’t as disgusting as Korean soju.  The owner was acting like it was Spirytus, but clearly he wasn’t of a stronger constitution like moi.  Janice also got the same drink as me, so she mixed it in with her juice.  Like vodka, it mixed very well.  Alcohol aside, the guanabana and blackberry juice was the ideal combo of sour and sweet to be paired with our savory plates that were eventually placed in front of us. IMG_5330 My ribs looked delectable, and I could smell the rich pork flavor wafting past my nostrils. IMG_5346 I took a bite, and it made me smile like a three toed sloth.  The food coma that would ensue later would make me move just as fast as they do.  I splashed some of the spicy bbq sauce from the beans and rice on top of the pork ribs, and it really gussied them up to go to the food jamboree in my stomach.  I really appreciated the ribs’ grease level since it was just the right amount that enhanced the flavor, but did not result in my hands looking like I washed my hands with baby oil.  Janice’s pork sausages by themselves were ok.IMG_5343  True, they had a softer casing that didn’t have a signature pop like Chicago hot dogs have, but the handground mustard sauce saved this dish. IMG_5344 It was a combo of Dijon and honey that enriched the pork but didn’t overwhelm my tastebuds.  The sauteed veggies on the side were competently made, but nothing really noteworthy.  By that point, we were thoroughly stuffed.  We paid the bill and made our way home looking at the stars in the darkness while holding hands hoping our trip would never end.

Costa Rica (Day 4)- Willy Wonka In the Jungle and Dining In a Drug Port

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It is almost the new year, and that means that I got to squeeze in these last few Costa Rica posts before starting anew in 2015 (fingers crossed).  What does the future hold for Mastication Monologues?  The sky is the limit I think if I keep up the great material, and all you readers out there keep on enjoying my posts.  Plus, I just got picked up to write for Localeur, named by Forbes as one of the top travel apps of 2015, so things are already turning up Milhouse.  More to come on that.  Anyway, today’s entry is going to be quite the sweet treat that began over breakfast back in San Jose.  If you want to read from the beginning of our vacation, click here.

Day 4 in Costa Rica started with a fresh breakfast of delicious mangos that were served up in an exquisite manner by Janice. IMG_5202 We had bought them a day earlier at a roadside fruit stand that went beyond apples and oranges.  After taking a bite, I became ravenous and destroyed the rest of the super sweet and satisfying pulp.  Having all of this fresh fruit around was yet another reason we came to love Costa Rica.  We met up with our group and proceeded northeast from San Jose toward Braulio Carillo National Park.  Before we got there, we had a rest stop at a roadside restaurant and gas station.  We were still hungry after our mango breakfast, so Janice and I got empanadas to go.  It was the perfect mini meal.  They were fried and greasy which I loved, and they were stuffed with a ton of ingredients. IMG_5206 Janice’s had a lot of smooth but not very bold cheese, but mine was a whole lot better.  IMG_5208It was filled with gallo pinto which we first had on day two before our Pacific cruise and chicharrones or fried pork skins. IMG_5209 It was best breakfast for on-the-go Ticos (“Costa Ricans” in the local dialect) which combined semi-savory rice, hearty beans, and crunchy yet chewy pieces of pork.  When we finally arrived at the national park, we started on the trail toward the chocolate presentation the forest rangers had prepared for us.  At one point in time, we passed over a huge river while being hooted at by a family of howler monkeys.  The jungle was getting more and more humid as the drizzle came down around us like a wet blanket. We eventually reached the theobroma, the variety of chocolate grown there (“food of the gods” in Greek), trail that led to the presentation pavilion.IMG_4072IMG_4080  Being a chocolate lover, I was greatly intrigued being in the heartland of where one of my favorite types of candy originated.  We started with an introduction to the cacao pods that grow in the jungle, and the white seeds that can be found in the fruits. IMG_4125IMG_4081 Our guide gave out free seed samples to eat, and the key was to suck on them until the white pulp melted away.IMG_4083IMG_4085  It tasted like lychees actually, but then the seeds were needed for the next step in the chocolate making process.  IMG_4086We learned that the early Mesoamericans ate and spit out these seeds throughout Latin America while migrating since it gave them energy for the long hikes.  These migrations combined with seed spitting led to the spread of cacao plants both north and south of Costa Rica.  After handing our slobber-coated seeds back to our guide, he showed us the second step in chocolate production:  fermentation.IMG_4088  These seeds are placed in a large box with micro-organisms that eventually results in a completely pure bean consisting of cacao solids and cocoa butter. IMG_4090 We could taste the beans, and it could be likened to a 80% cacao dark chocolate bar.IMG_4097IMG_4098IMG_4094  The next step in the process took a turn for the historical.  The presenters took out a large volcanic stone basin known as a metate and a super hot stone called a metlapil, both Nahuatl words for the Mayan tools used in chocolate grinding.  As one of the guides got down to business, he offered us the chance to try our hands at making coarse cocoa powder.  I went first, and I couldn’t believe how stoic the guide was when he was using the metlapil.  I could only hold it for two seconds at a time tops it was so hot.  Janice tried it too, but she was smart and used her long sleeps as oven mitts. IMG_4101IMG_4102 After a couple more minutes of playing Mayan hot potato, a semi-fine cocoa powder resided in the metate.  However, our main guide informed us that when Spanish nuns arrived after the Conquistadores, they realized they could make this bitter Mayan treat a lot more palatable for Spanish tastes by adding sugar and cinnamon to the mix.  IMG_4105We also got a chance to try a European grinder that was a lot more labor intensive, but you weren’t burning your fingerprints off in the process.IMG_4107IMG_4109  Once finished, we took the very fine powder and mixed it with hot water to make one of the most sacred drinks of the Maya. IMG_4113 It was only served to the upper classes, priests, and kings.  The Mayan chocolate drink was then made to be frothy by pouring it back and forth between cups to get the ideal espuma or foam on top.  You can see a Mayan illustration of the process behind our guide in the picture below.  IMG_4116 However, the Spaniards disliked this drink, known in Nahuatl as cacagua, because it was bitter and literally means “poo water” in Spanish (caca + agua), and probably tasted like it to them before the addition of sugar and cinnamon.  We also saw how the Spaniards made the drink frothy by using what looked like a 16th Century egg beater. IMG_4117 Then, in true Maya fashion, we were allowed to put in some classic additives the chocolate producers would introduce to their varieties to make them more popular.  In this instance we had corn starch, ground pepper, chile, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Right to left:  corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Right to left: corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Too bad they didn’t allow us to mix in some tobacco and smoke it as the Maya once did.  Instead of scorching my lungs, I went for a literal hot chocolate with a lot of chile, some ground pepper, a dash of vanilla extract, and some corn starch to thicken the drink.  It was plenty spicy, but I didn’t note any thickening of the watery mixture. IMG_4123 The chocolate was sublime as we sipped to the sound of the gently falling rain and the rustling of agoutis in the underbrush and calls of exotic birds in the distance.  After that, we heard that the chocolate powder to make chocolate bars is first pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao solids.  This is where our guide dropped a huge bomb on us:  white chocolate is not chocolate!!  What it actually is is a bar of cocoa butter, sugar, and condensed milk.  Basically it’s eating a bar of fat with no chocolate involved.  After pressing, the cacao solids are then melted in a kiln and the result is liquid deliciousness.IMG_4124  We got to eat spoonfuls of the milk chocolate goop along with two fresh chocolate shapes. IMG_4126IMG_4129 IMG_4130 To end the demonstration, we got a bag of cocoa beans that we could cook at home or exchange for post cards.  IMG_4131Like Gollum, I kept my precious to eat at home.  On our walk back through the forest we saw real cocoa pods on the trees that were infected with a fungus that shut down the chocolate plantation that used to be in that very same jungle.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

This fungus devastated the chocolate industry in Costa Rica, and that’s why the biggest chocolate producers are in West Africa now.  We went back to the entrance for lunch which was another buffet with rice and beans, but there were also three new items on the menu:  heart of palm, fried yuca, and chayote. IMG_4135 The heart of palm is a vegetable that literally comes from within certain palm trees, and I could liken it to a non-offensive artichoke.  The fried yuca literally tasted like deep fried potato slices, and the chayote tasted like squash.

Heart of palm and chayote

Heart of palm and chayote

For dessert, there was flan that was not too runny that I really enjoyed especially with the drizzle of super sweet caramel on top.IMG_4139  Once we finished our tour in the national park, our bus driver took us back to the roadside restaurant and gas station where we got our empanadas in the morning.  Janice and I broke off from the group with our new driver, Rigoberto, to go to the Caribbean coast since we were going to see the Sloth Sanctuary the next day.  After a long drive and night had fallen, our cordial driver stopped in the port city of Limón.  Our condo owner, Mark, warned us of drug trafficking and violence in the town, and it fit the bill.  Large groups of shady guys hanging out on street corners.  Prostitutes chilling outside truck depots.  Kids lighting off firecrackers in huge groups of people that could have been mistaken for gunshots.  Rigoberto, a native Costa Rican, looked super wary as we parked the car outside a typical Costa Rican greasy spoon diner or a “soda” in Costa Rican Spanish called Happy Landing.  He made sure we left nothing in the car, and looking at our surroundings I could see why when he said many people don’t like to come to this area.  We walked in, and the place could have used new lights and a new coat of paint.  IMG_5221 IMG_5220We looked at the menu, and it was all Chinese food!  Classic Costa Rican cuisine haha.  I decided to get the chow mein, and Janice just got fried chicken.  While we were waiting, Rigoberto got randomly pulled into a convo with a guy who had at least ten empty beer bottles in front of him on the table (see pic above; drunky is in plaid).  Eventually, my food came out, and it was the most ridiculous Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some interesting things in China. IMG_5223 IMG_5224 They fried the noodles, and put them on the side like a bread basket or something like that.  The ingredients were all mushed together and not very flavorful.  Janice’s fried chicken came out way later than my plate or Rigoberto’s for some reason, but this diner was not worth stopping for.  We safely made our way out of the drug port and deeper into the dark jungle to find our hotel.  Rigoberto hadn’t been to the coast since 1986, so he was as lost as we were.  Google Maps to the rescue!  We eventually had to traverse a dirt and gravel path in the jungle to get to our destination, Kenaki Lodge, that was across from the beach.  The gates opened, and we were greeted by a French woman and her poochy parade.IMG_5228  We quickly became friends with them, including my best bud the Great Dane. IMG_5227 It was a long day of adventures and food sampling that left us looking forward to the day to come as we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach.

Costa Rica (Day 3)- Fruits of Our Travels

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you haven’t been following my blog, you are in the middle of my Costa Rican travel series where I recount all of the wild and woolly adventures I find myself in throughout the country (Day 1 and Day 2).  Day 3, today’s post, takes me to a land of oxcarts, hidden volcanos, and hot springs.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The morning started off with a snag as we were locked in our condo complex that was preventing us from getting breakfast before meeting up with our group.  Thankfully, my Spanish came in handy, and we were at Denny’s before you could say “Buenos dias!”.  There really wasn’t anything of note at the American diner aside from the delicious pancakes.  The real highlights came later in the day as we first traveled in the morning to Sarchi which is famous in Costa Rica for their handmade ox carts.  They were a lot more popular and common before the advent of automobiles in the countryside, but now they are mostly used for decorative purposes or collecting.  Before we went to the workshop, our group stopped at a local bakery in the town square that was opposite the largest ox cart in the world!IMG_5147IMG_5152  Before seeing this behemoth, we perused all the different types of breads and pastries that were on sale. IMG_5153 It seemed like they had a lot of different types of bread puddings with different flavors ranging from coconut (Janice’s choice) to pineapple.  I, on the other hand, got a creme pastry that looked somewhat like a brazo de gitano (literally “gypsy’s arm”) dessert from Spain.IMG_5145  It had everything I wanted for breakfast:  soft pastry dough and plenty of sweet and light whipped filling. IMG_5146 The only downside was the excessive dusting of powdered sugar on the outside that was delicious initially but in the end left me looking like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. IMG_5599I saved it for later though since it was quite a good amount of sugar in a short period of time.  We had a tour of the Taller Eloy de Sarchi, and some of the artwork was simply spectacular.  The colors were so bright and vibrant it looked like the animals were going to jump out at us.  IMG_5165Thankfully, it was just some fancy artwork, and we moved on toward our next destination in the form of the Arenal Volcano.  Once more, we had another roadside stop for food along the way.  This was one of many reasons why I loved our travel group!  This time, it was at a local fruit stand that had some recognizable produce like pumpkins, plantains, and pineapples, but then there were more exotic samples of Costa Rica’s countryside such as purple sweet potatoes and yuca.

Left to right:  pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

Left to right: pumpkins, purple sweet potatoes, and pineapples

IMG_5174For example, a smaller cart of these odd red fruits that were a bit before the larger fruit shop we were occupying caught Janice’s eye.  She said that they looked like the combination of an apple and a pear.  One of the women in our group bought them, and lo and behold Janice was right.  Our guide informed us that they are known as Malaysian apples.  While their exterior appearance was bold and intriguing, their taste was the polar opposite.IMG_5178  It tasted like a super bland pear that could only be “enhanced” with the salt in a small accompanying bag the fruit hawker supplied our fellow traveler. IMG_5177 Another interesting entry was the green oranges that were in the same bin as yellow fruits that were completely beyond anything I’ve ever seen. IMG_5175 I bought one of the fruits that was slightly smaller than a baseball, and I found out I had to crack it open in order to eat it.IMG_5176  The exterior was the only normal thing about it.  Opening it was an adventure as I cracked through the thin yellow exterior and was quickly fingering through a white, dry, spongy material.IMG_5179  After moving beyond that, I was greeted with a grey, slimy seed pouch that was held in place with small white tendrils.  I learned that the proper way to eat this fruit called a granadilla (“small pomegranate” in Spanish) was to slurp up the black seeds along with the amniotic sack that was holding them.IMG_5181  The craziest thing were the edible and very crunch seeds.IMG_5184  It was overall a good purchase because it was actually quite delicious beyond its bizarre appearance that I could liken to a sweet orange with a tangy lime zing aftertaste.  We also bought some mangos for breakfast later on.  Our visit to the Arenal Volcano was a bust because it was completely obscured by fog and drizzle, but lunch was wonderful.  It was at a very unique restaurant called Restaurante Tobogán or “Slide Restaurant” in Spanish. IMG_5190 Why would it have such a random name?  Well, because this establishment literally had a giant water slide coming out of the top of it which led to a pool on the side that I’m sure would have been bumping if the weather was more agreeable.IMG_5191  I got the steak fajitas which once again were a lot different from the Mexican variety since there were no sizzling tabletop grills or tortillas to be seen.  The same juicy pieces of grilled steak and onions were there, but they were accompanied with a Costa Rican classic known as casado or “married/married man”. IMG_5187 It consisted of white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and a mixed salad.  The name is said to either have originated from customers asking to be served as married men and have the same food in the restaurant as they would at home, or a more plausible explanation would be that the beans and rice are forever linked in gastronomic matrimony.  It was during this meal I was also introduced to salsa Lizano which I could liken to a sweet Worcestershire sauce with a hint of spice.IMG_5186  It went great with the fajitas and beans and rice offering a salty/spicy contrast.  I also enjoyed a cool, refreshing glass of guanábana or sour sop juice.  I had tried it previously in south London in a Jamaican restaurant, and I loved it since it seemed like a sweet limeade of sorts.  However, the Costa Rican variety wasn’t as sweet and a lot frothier.  After the meal, we went to Baldi hot springs which was extremely relaxing along with us being able to fly down some water slides since we weren’t able to go down the one earlier in the day. IMG_5198 We had dinner at Baldi’s buffet, and most of it I had already tried aside from the Costa Rican version of tamales.  They were very similar to the Mexican version with the cornmeal base encasing seasoned chicken and pork, but the main difference was that they were wrapped in banana leaves and boiled instead of being baked in corn husks.  It was a calming end to a hurried day as we bonded with our fellow travelers over dinner and subsequently rode our food comas all the way back to San Jose for our next adventure.

 

Costa Rica (Day 2)- Cruisin’ For Brews, Beans, and Bites

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As this Chicago winter rolls on, I seriously think that Janice and I brought back some of the sunny warm weather with us from Costa Rica.  Seriously, there has been little to no snow in Chicago, and I´m loving it!  However, today’s post is day 2 in my Costa Rica travelogue.  By the way, If you haven’t read day one on my blog, I highly suggest it if you are a seafood lover.

Anyway, day two kicked off with a classic Costa Rican breakfast that is a little bit different than the ol’ eggs, bacon, and pancakes as big as your face back in ‘Murika.  Instead, we were greeted with the quintessential Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, tortillas, and two different types of plantains.   IMG_5097First, there is gallo pinto (“spotted/painted rooster” in Spanish) whose name is derived from the ingredients bearing a resemblance to a type of cockerel.  As for its origins, some believe the dish came over with the African slaves that migrated into Latin America while others believe it came from Spain where its known as cristianos y moros (Christians and Moors).  Whatever you call it, it was delicious.  It wasn’t heavy but very filling and flavorful.  I could see that it came from humble but rich roots with the black beans mixed in with the seasoned and fried rice.  It made a great filler for the tortillas on the side to make small breakfast burritos which do not exist in traditional Costa Rican fare (not every Latin American country has tacos and burritos!).  I do have to say that the Costa Rican tortillas were better than any of their Mexican counterparts I’ve tried.  They are both corn based, but the Costa Rican ones were super resilient compared to their relatives up north.  That scored big points on my foodie scorecard.  As for the two different plantains, there were both baked and fried varieties.  While down in Costa Rica, I also learned the difference between plantains and bananas, and it isn’t the difference in size.  While bananas can be eaten raw, plantains must be cooked if they are to be consumed by humans.  If I had to pick one or the other, the fried ones were my jam like during day one, and they were the ideal sweet compliment to the savory rice and beans.  Once we finished our breakfast to the tunes of a marimba band, we were off on a catamaran to Isla Tortuga on the Pacific coast.IMG_5096  What better to go with the pristine view of the Gulf of Nicoya than a cold, Costa Rican beer?  So, I got an Imperial which is the official beer of Costa Rica.  IMG_5103Once again, this supposed king of beers was a mere pretender to the throne.  It was an average, light lager that was crisp and non-offensive for a beautiful day.  Once we landed on the postcard that was Isla Tortuga, we enjoyed snorkeling, swimming, and some breathtaking views.  IMG_4022When it came time for lunch, it was anything but normal.  First, we were summoned to the feast via a conch shell.  Then we got a full salad bar that was freshly made in the kitchen hut.  The mixed salad was verdant and coated in a semi-sweet vinaigrette, but I was more partial to the cucumber and onion mix.IMG_4005  It was smooth and filled with some funky dill that made a potentially bland salad really pop.  IMG_4007IMG_4006The real star of the show though was the local peccary that Janice quickly made friends with.  Apparently this wild pig has been coming by the cookouts for over 15 years, and the marimba music was almost like its intro song.IMG_4010  It was very friendly and fell over whenever someone would pet it.IMG_5112  I could see that it was smarter than it looked since it worked the room by getting free food from each table.  Lunch was much more elaborate in the form of a full meat and veg platter complete with a Hibiscus flower for a flourish.  This meal didn’t even need a flower to be fancy and eye catching.  IMG_4014The chicken breast was muy sabroso  (very tasty) with just the right amount of char-grilled flavor to compliment the sweeter, coconut based curry sauce that had specks of the white fruit sprinkled on top.  The bread was warm and soft, but the butter was oddly bland.  I especially enjoyed the vegetable hash on the side that consisted of pan-fried carrots and cassava strands.  As for dessert, it was a rich but understated tres leches cake whose vanilla laced crumbs were topped with a drunkenly placed strand of whipped cream.IMG_4018  It, like most other Costa Rican meals, was fresh, filling, but not heavy like most American meals.  It gave us the energy to take on a lame banana boat ride and to savor the final views of that enchanting island that immediately made us realize of the beauty Latin America had to offer.IMG_5120

Costa Rica (Day 1): Eating With Royalty

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Merry Christmas and happy holiday season to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I hope this post finds you well, and you have been enjoying plenty of delicious dishes at some rockin’ parties.  Today begins the recounting of our (Janice and I) adventure to Costa Rica.  Why Costa Rica you might ask?  Well, it was the same price as a ticket to Texas, and we wanted some place warm.  So, why not go to a place that is a bit more exotic and less like King of the Hill? Then there is the question as to what exactly Costa Rica offers over more popular Latin American destinations like Brazil or Argentina or Mexico?  Easy.  A country that is an anomaly in the region in the sense of being a more European enclave surrounded by more indigenous/mestizo nations.  A country that has not had a standing army since 1948.  A country with the largest sloth sanctuary in the world (more to come on this particular Costa Rican highlight).  Another fun fact is that our trip to the land of Pura Vida is that it was one of my best vacations ever thanks to my lovely travel partner and delicious food that we sampled all over the country.  Day one takes us to a local favorite in San Jose, the capital city.

When we landed in the country, we were greeted with sun, smiles, and warm weather.  Coming from typically frigid Chicago, I could only turn to Janice, chuckle, and say, “This is December”.  This became a common refrain when we witnessed something absolutely beautiful that would be instead frozen solid or coated in a sludge of melted snow if it was up north in Chi-town.  While being driven from the airport to our condo, we talked with the driver, Rigoberto, about what would be a good, local place to grab dinner.  He recommended La Princesa Marina (The Marine Princess), and soon thereafter, our condo owner also confirmed that it would be a perfect way to kick off our vacation.

We caught a ride with the condo owner, and eventually arrived at the door.IMG_5082  I couldn’t give you directions there since Costa Rican street names aren’t the best, and most locals rely on landmarks to show you the way.  Ergo, the biggest thing by the establishment is the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica shown below (the national soccer stadium build by the Chinese curiously enough).  IMG_5086It was moderately packed when we walked into the place since local soccer club, Saprissa, was getting ready to play the final game of the season against neighboring Heredia. IMG_5080 Apparently this is one of the big, rowdy hangouts when the big matches happen.  Luckily, we came there way before kickoff, so we weren’t caught up in any type of hubbub. IMG_5081 Most of the staff were rocking their Saprissa jerseys though.  Janice and I just had our game faces on as we were looking over their giant menus that were in both English and Spanish, and there were two columns of prices that indicated the price before and after tax.  I never saw that anywhere else in the world.  Obviously, La Princesa Marina is a seafood place, and Costa Rica is known for their amazing frutas del mar.  Naturally, we kicked it off with two different types of ceviche, camaron con aguacate (shrimp with avocado; 3,690 colones/$6.80) and corvina con aguacate (sea bass which is a local specialty with avocado; 3,320 colones/$6).  NOTE:  They accept both Colones and USD in Costa Rica in most places, but the exchange rate is really messy when trying to convert between the two which made it difficult for us to determine what was a good or bad deal.  They say use USD, but I’d recommend using Colones because it’s less of a headache.

Sloths!

Sloths!

To drink, I got a Costa Rican Bavaria Gold ( 1,905/$3.50).  That came out first, and it was nothing special. IMG_5065 It was a pilsner that was slightly bitter and had hoppy notes, but it was pretty watery overall.

When they all came out, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now, I’m not a big fish guy beyond shrimp and tuna fish sandwiches, but this ceviche really won me over.  Ceviche has a colorful history that stretches back over 2,000 years in Peru (originally called siwichi in Quechua) that was first invented by Inca populations that then adopted the citrus fruits like oranges, limes, and lemons that the Spanish explorers brought with them compliments of their former Moorish overlords.  The dish basically hasn’t changed since then since it still consists of raw fish that is “cooked” by the citric acid from the aforementioned fruits, in this case lemon and lime.  However, it was a bit different than Mexican ceviche I’ve tried that had tortilla chips on the side instead of the saltines the Costa Ricans preferred.  Plus, it had a lot more liquid in it which was similar to an Ecuadorian variety I sampled at a family friend’s party.  Either way, I sampled both and liked the shrimp ceviche better. IMG_5068 I found the corvina to be good, pure white sea bass, but it didn’t have the chewier texture that the shrimp brought to the table.IMG_5066  For both, I loved the combination of smooth avocado with the onions, cilantro, and tangy citrus juices that I kicked up a notch with a trusty local hot sauce that I could liken to a kind of Tabasco. IMG_5071 I wasn’t a huge fan of the saltines as a means of transporting the tasty ceviche from bowl to mouth due to the crumbliness of the cracker, so I guess I enjoy the Mexican ceviche more in that aspect.  Once we were almost done with our ceviches, our main plates came out.

First, there was my arroz de la casa (rice of the house;  4,180/$7.75) which was a ton of cooked rice that was seasoned and filled with shrimp, pork, chicken, and a mix of vegetables. IMG_5074 It was similar to the rice side dish found in almost every Mexican restaurant in terms of the orange hue, slightly buttery flavor, and corn and peas lurking amongst the grains, but the meat really jazzed up this side dish to make it one of the highlights of the meal.  My lomo en salsa jalapeña (sirloin in jalapeño pepper sauce; 5,535/$10) was also fantastic.IMG_5072  The steak was seared to perfection, and the spicy sauce was filled with onions, peppers, and extra spicy jalapeño slices.  Not only did I have the huge slab of meat in front of me, but there was a cup of fried plantains, plain white rice, and black beans on the side.   IMG_5075I ignored the rice, but the fried plantains were wonderful since they tasted like a mix of caramel and bananas.  As for the black beans, they were interesting since there literally was a piece of pork sticking out of the ebony muck like the sinking Titanic.  However, this doomed piece of pork imparted its flavor to the beans that were scrumptious, and soon thereafter had a one way ticket to my stomach.  Then there was Janice’s mixed plate of shrimp, fish filets, and octopus (plato surtido de camaron, filet, y pulpo 7,380/$13). IMG_5076 Even with the wonderful seafood in the ceviche, Janice was quite disappointed with this mixed plate, and she loves seafood which is saying something.  It looked like the shrimp were cooked and marinated in some type of butter/olive oil sauce with herbs, but I didn’t try them or the fish filets. IMG_5077 The filets just looked like fried pieces of corvina, so I’m sure they weren’t anything special. IMG_5079 As for the octopus, if they were cut in slightly smaller pieces with a pinch of paprika, I would say it was just as good as the pulpo gallego I had in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. IMG_5078It was so fresh that the suction cups still would stick to the plate, and it was neither too chewy nor too soggy.  Definitely the king of this sea platter.

When it came time to pay, I found out that I had go up to a cashier window that looked more at home in a liquor store than a restaurant since it had bars on the window and a small opening where receipts and money were exchanged.  While paying, this was where I first found out how screwy the currency was since our bill came out to roughly $50 bucks.  I paid in USD, and I got Colones back and mixed change, i.e. there were 100 colon coins, 500 colon coins, and then some nickles thrown in there for fun.  Seriously?  Nickles?  Either way, La Princesa Marina was a filling and satisfying way to kick off our vacation, and got us ready for the adventures to come.

 

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